So here I am, sitting on a fence again. I’m only two steps from my Arrow of Light and then I can graduate from my pack and be a Boy Scout. I’ve wanted to do that ever since I was a Tiger, when my big brother Max made Eagle in Troop 5. But he’s off at college now, and I’m left at home with just my parents and my fox terrier, Snuffy. But there are two troops in our town, and my cousin Bill is in the other one: Troop 1. Not that him and I are all that close, but family’s family, Grampa always says.
My parents aren’t all that big on the Boy Scout idea, anyway. “How’ll you make time for your sports and being a Boy Scout?” they keep asking me. “Maybe instead of trying to pick between two troops you should be deciding between your traveling team and Scouts, ‘cause you probably can’t do both.” What to do… what to do…
It ain’t easy not being eleven yet with an 18-year old brother and parents who drive me to my games and pack meetings and that’s about it ‘cause they’d thought their parenting days were sort of over till I came along and sent ‘em back to diaper-washing and pear-mashing school. Yeah, they love me, and I love ‘em back, but secretly I know they’d like to be taking cruises and such, like their friends are doing now.
Anyway, yesterday in the school cafeteria, two of the guys in Troop 5 just happen to run into me—“accidently on purpose,” as my Gramma would put it. “Hey, like, what’s happenin’, Eddie,” Sean and Jack ask. Sean Collins, he’s Troop 5’s Senior Patrol Leader, and Jack Davis is a Patrol Leader there. “Not much,” I reply, a little on my guard. “Seen your cousin Bill lately,” they go. “Yeah,” I tell ‘em. “You know we ride the same bus to school every day, right?” “Has he talked about Scouts with you?” they wonder. “No duh,” I say; “he wants me in Troop 1.” “So, are you gonna?” Sean asks, sorta trying to look like he doesn’t care one way or the other. “Haven’t decided yet,” which is sure the truth! “Tell you what, Eddie,” Jack says, “Troop 5 is goin’ on a hike on Saturday; if your team doesn’t have a game, why don’t you plan on coming along.” “No game,” I tell ‘em, “but I’ll have to check if my parents have anything planned.” “OK, so text me if you can go,” says Sean; “we’re leaving around 8, and Mister Monahan can pick you up with some of the rest of us.” “Ok, and thanks,” I reply. I’m polite, ‘cause these guys are at least two years older than me; I’m surprised they’re even talking to me—I’m still at least two years away from zit city. “No biggie,” says Sean.
Back on the bus, ol’ cousin Bill sits next to me, which is a little weird since he’s, like, 14. “Hey, Eddie, how’d you like to visit one of Troop 1’s meetings tomorrow night?” he says, smiling. “Yeah, OK,” I say, “If one of my parents can drive me there; it’s getting darker earlier now and they don’t like me riding my bike at nighttime.”
So I go to the troop meeting, and I gotta say it was fun. Learnt to tie some knots I didn’t know, got to figure out how a compass works, and played some relay games with the patrols. Cool guys; definitely not dorks. They were pretty OK to a skinny little kid like me! Maybe this is the troop I should join. But I’m still not sure. And besides, I said I’d go on that hike Saturday.
Saturday shows up all white; we got our first snow Friday night. “Hey, I’m off the hook,” I think; “they’ll cancel that hike for sure and I can just hook up with Troop 1 and it’s a done deal.” (I figure I can sell my parents on doing both Scouts and sports; after all, the sports stuff slows down for a while once I’m done with fifth grade.) I’m wrong. We’re in the middle of breakfast and I get a text from Sean: “pick u up in 10 – the hike’s on.” Oh, crap, I’m not even geared to go. Charge upstairs, get dressed for snow, grab my Sorels, find my gloves, charge back downstairs just in time. Doorbell rings; it’s Sean. “OK, Sunshine, let’s get outa here,” he grins. “Hey, what time will you all be back?” my Dad yells from the kitchen. “Not to worry, Mister Stafford,” shouts Sean, “we’ll have him back by dinnertime.”
Piled in the car, I look at Sean. “I can’t believe we’re gonna do this!” I’m saying to Sean and the others. “Why not? The snow? Just makes today more fun, Eddie!” “How’s that supposed to happen?” I fire back. “Well, we’ve got a surprise for you… We’re not only hiking today, but Troop 1’s challenged us to lose ‘em in the woods. Your cousin Bill texted me last night about the idea, we put our ‘phone tree’ into action, he’s rounding up his troop right now,” he throws back. “Whatta you mean, ‘losing’ Troop 1?” I’m puzzled. “Game we invented,” Sean tells me. “We get a head-start; then Troop 1 tries to track and catch us. Sorta like ‘Capture the Flag’ but better.” “Heck, that’s no contest! We’re gonna leave a huge trail in this snow!” I say. “You think?” he says. “Well, wait’ll we’re there and we’ll show you.”
I’m wondering, unless we stick to plowed roads, there’s no way we’re gonna not leave a trail a blind pig could find.
We get to the field that borders the woods, pile out with the others, and the two troops assemble. The two Senior Patrol Leaders hook up and match their watches; then Sean comes back to us. “OK, guys, huddle up. It’s a half-hour head start and a four-hour time limit. If we make our final destination by the four-hour mark and the Troop 1 guys haven’t caught us, we win. And today we’re gonna win!” Sean assures us. Our take-off point, where we can leave the plowed road, is a half-mile away, so on the whistle we take off—there’s nearly thirty of us!—at a jog. I’m looking left and right; there’s not a mark on the snow on either side of the road, so how the heck are we supposed to “disappear”? Then I find out.
At the take-off point on the roadside, Sean brings us up and gives the order: “OK, buddy-up and scatter by buddies; no two buddy pairs on the same heading; gather by patrols in 15 minutes by your Patrol Leaders’ calls (I learn that each patrol has a different “call”); then patrols round up as a troop, at Liberty Corner, in one hour. Don’t lag; those guys are good trackers and fast, and it’s a good four miles to the Corner.
Almost faster than I can figure what to do, the Scouts break and run for the woods—in over two dozen different directions. I eyeball the route I’m gonna take, and get set to take off, too, when I notice Sean’s hung back for a bit and now he’s running pretty much alongside me. “You’re my buddy today, Eddie,” he calls between breaths as we charge for the woods on the far side of the field. “Can’t have a newbie gettin’ lost out here!”
Wow! These guys are in shape! I’m a Lacrosse forward, so I should be able to pretty much keep up with even the big guys, I think. No way. These Scouts are fast! Yeah, Sean’s letting me set the pace, but I know he’s just cruising. As we clear the first rank of trees, I’m hearing a bunch of weird calls—some like birds, some like animals. Sean tells me it’s the Patrol Leaders and their patrols staying in touch (we’d left all our electronic stuff home, like Sean said we were supposed to do—wristwatches yes, but no iPhones or Droids or even GPS’s).
The woods are thick; the leaves and pine needles are covered by the snow; it’s white and unbroken but dark and shadowy beneath the thickness of the evergreens overhead. The deer have eaten clean the lower branches before the snowfall, so we’re making good time and not breaking branches as we run (that’s when I learn that good trackers, like the guys in Troop 1, look for the direction a branch has been broken in; this tells ‘em the direction we’re going). It’s almost silent; snow absorbs sound, I learn. All I hear is me and Sean’s breathing, and the occasional patrol call.
We hit a clearing, jump a brook, claw up a steep bank on the other side, and continue the same fast pace we had on the open field. Sean’s listening and pointing, “The Timber Wolf Patrol’s over to our left, Eddie; the Screaming Eagles are at our two o’clock. Can you hear ‘em?” We keep going at a jog. Sean lets out a whistle every now and then, to let the others know where we are.
Near the hour-mark, Sean and I break into a second clearing; it’s Liberty Corner. Two patrols have already come in; the third—the Bloody Bears—is coming in fast at our six. The Banshees, who must have overshot, we figured, were probably coming back around to join up. “Hey, those Troop 1 guys’ll never track us through this mess,” I pant. “Wanna bet,” says Jack; “they’ll pair off just like us and each take a buddy track to where our own patrols formed up, then they’ll figure where we’re headed by the tracks of eight-at-a-time.” “Then why’d we do it that way,” I’m wondering. “We’re figuring that all they need to do is have one pair of their buddies go wrong. When and if they catch us, there’s a roll call and they have to have every one of their Scouts there within five minutes or we win!” Sean tells me. “So save your breath; we’re not near done yet.”
We head out again, climbing an abandoned farm fence and taking off across an open field. The Banshees still hadn’t finished their loop back, so after about a hundred yards or so, Sean signals the three Patrol Leaders to hold up. He checks his watch, puzzled. “The Banshees have some of the fastest runners in the troop; hope they didn’t get nailed by the Troop 1 guys. If we’re not at full muster at the finish, we’re doomed and Troop 1 wins.”
“Hey, hear that cracking in the woods over there?” I shout. “Good ears, Eddie, it’s the Banshees,” Sean says. Sure enough, the Banshee Patrol vaults the fence and charges straight for us. “We thought you were in front of us,” Sean says. “Wish we were,” pants Bryan, their Patrol Leader; “got stuck in that bog and nearly lost our boots! If the Troop 1 guys follow our path, they’re in for one nasty surprise. But here we are, so let’s book it!”
“Not so fast,” Sean says, “Now it’s single-file, slow, and foot-step it. Banshees, you take point and set the pace. Eddie here and I’ll take sweep.” (Sweep, or “Tail-End Charlie” is considered the most important position on a trek like this, I find out, because we’re responsible for any injuries or other problems.)
Out of the field and into the woods again, our path now looks almost like it’s only one Scout walking; that’s how precise our steps became. But Sean doesn’t figure it’ll fool Bill or his troop for long, so after about ten minutes of this he passes the word forward to hold up. We group up and split into patrols again, this time heading due east, but on separate tracks, at a trot. I’m guessing that the pace can’t last too long and I’m right. By now, I sure wish this had been a Nordic ski trek! I could definitely appreciate being able to pole and glide instead of slogging through ankle-deep snow! After we cover another mile, we re-group and Sean gives us a new plan: “OK, Banshees and Eagles split left and right, circle back to the west end of that fence line we crossed back there, but stay in the woods, and wait for the others. Wolves and Bears, you’re on my six; we’re gonna cut straight east, then south, then northwest to the fence line. Patrol Leaders, check your compasses, then head out. Eddie, you’re with me.” We take off.
The route Sean picks for us and the Wolves and Bears isn’t fun. We cross two more streams, or maybe it was the same stream twice, and then hit a thicket we have to crawl under. “My Dad lived out west for a while,” Sean tells me, “and this stuff is like the chaparral he told me all cowboys hate, ‘cause it’s too thick to go through straight up, too wide to go around, and too tall to jump over. I’m hoping it gives Bill and his troop fits.” Well it’s giving me fits, too, I’m thinking; this stuff is just plain nasty. The Scouts seem to be used to it; not a swear-word from any of ‘em. Are they nuts, or just plain tough? I wonder.
All of us out from under the other side, we climb a knoll that’s bare of trees and such but has some pretty big boulders layin’ around. “Jack, pick two of your Scouts to stay behind this boulder,” says Sean, pointing to one that’s almost as tall as a man. “They should wait here a half-hour. If they spot Bill or any of the Troop 1 Scouts, they need to stay low but book it down the other side back to us, with an estimate of how much lead-time we have. If they see nothing and 30 minutes pass, then they head straight for us fast as they can. Got it?” “We’re good,” says Jack. “Jason and Seth, how about you two take the boulder; you’re the fastest runners in our patrol.” They agree, take their positions, and the rest of us are on the trail again.
We’re just about a half-mile from the boulder knoll when Jason and Seth break through the woods and catch up to us. “They’re less than ten minutes behind us, Sean, and they’re comin’ like Transformers on steroids!” they pant. “OK, we’re on the run. Follow me; I know where we’re headed now!” shouts Sean, and we’re off at the fastest pace we’ve run all day.
Sean brings us up at an old wooden bridge. It’s crossing a stream with steep banks on both sides. The stream’s shallow, and it froze overnight. “OK, grab some downed branches and sweep the bridge clean of the snow,” he tells us as he grabs a switch and begins brooming with it; “fast now.” We follow his lead and within minutes there’s not a flake of snow on that bridge. “OK, take your branches and follow me…slowly and carefully.” He walks to the center of the bridge, slips under the side-rail on the right, and gingerly lowers himself onto the ice, steps away downstream quickly. “C’mon… one by one,” he whispers. We follow, gently lowering ourselves till our feet touch the ice, then moving downstream fast but careful, so it doesn’t crack. We keep moving single-file downstream on the ice till the stream bends and we can’t see the bridge anymore. Sean raises his hand and freezes us, then quietly, “Everybody turn right, right here, and climb the bank; use your branch behind you to smooth out the snow.” We do this. Except my branch gets stuck in a bush on the bank. When I try to pull it loose, my left foot slips and I slide down the bank onto the ice, breaking through and feeling a sharp stab in my ankle. “Oh, S***!” I holler.
Sean, Jack, and two other Scouts quickly form a “human chain” and Sean reaches down; he pulls me out of the water and ice, and up the bank. The others sweep the mess I made in the snow, covering my slide-path best they can.
The pain doesn’t go away. “I think it’s broken; oh crap, my ankle’s broken!” I start to shiver; I want to cry and know I can’t let that happen. Not now. Sean pulls my pant leg out of the way and presses his hands to different sides of my Sorel and ankle but doesn’t unlace the boot. I still hurt, but not so bad. Jack and Bryan have taken their jackets off and wrap me in them, just to make sure the shivering stops. It does after a little bit and they put their jackets back on. We quickly agree: it’s a sprain, maybe; nothing’s broken. I see Sean, Jack, and Bryan exchange looks. “It’s gonna be OK, Eddie, we’re gonna stay right here with you till you feel like walking slowly.” “No!” I holler. “You CAN’T do that! We’ll lose the challenge if you guys don’t go RIGHT NOW and get to the finish. It’s OK, ‘cause I’m not really a Scout yet, anyway, so I don’t count!”
There’s a shout from upstream: “There they are!” Bill and a bunch of Troop 1 Scouts are pointing at us and calling others. They carefully, quickly, walk-slide themselves down the ice, till they’re standing right below us on the bank.
I’m still hollering. “Get outa here, guys! They haven’t caught you yet! Run!” But they don’t move; not one. “Aw, this sucks… Will you guys please go already?” I’m practically begging. Nothing. They just stand there, sorta grinning at Bill and the Troop 1 gang. “Thought we’d lost you at the bridge, Billy. You guys are pretty smart…after all!” Sean says. “Yeah, you almost did. Smart move. So how come we catch you here, when you’re so close to home base?” Bill asks. “It’s me, Bill,” I say. “I screwed up and twisted my ankle, and these guys just won’t get outa here!”
Bill gets thoughtful for a little while. He turns and speaks quietly with the other Scouts, then raises his eyes to us and says quietly, “You all had a good run, Sean. So, where can we build a campfire and chow down?” Sean looks down. “The rest of 5’s probably got the fire goin’ already, and it’s just beyond this bunch of hedges a little ways. C’mon and join us; no point in two fires when one’ll do just fine!”
Bill looks over his shoulder at his troop. “George, Brooks, Mike, and Adam, can you rassle up a stretcher-like for Eddie here, so it’s easier for him to get to the campfire? “Sure, Bill,” they say, and in pretty quick time I’m aboard a tree-branch stretcher with some jackets slung through their sleeves to make a base. Off we go, and the campfire’s roaring when we get there. I can smell the hot dogs and cocoa, and start feeling better right away.
“This isn’t fair, ya know,” I tell ‘em… “Troop 5 would have won today if it hadn’t been for me, and I shouldn’t count ‘cause I’m not a Scout yet!” “Yeah, it’s a tough end to a good race, but somebody’s gotta win, and today it was Troop 1,” says Sean, and the other Troop 5 guys nod. They agree. “Besides,” Sean continues, “you’re a pretty game kid, and any troop would be glad to have you join up!” I’m still feeling pretty sucky: “You all coulda left me behind and won!” “Yeah, they coulda,” says Bill, “but Eddie, aren’t you getting it yet… That’s not what Scouts do, and today you were a Scout—one of us, no matter what troop.”
That does it. I know the troop I want to join. Happens in a flash. I stick out my left hand. “I’m joining YOUR troop,” I grin.
# # #
In 1921 the BSA published THE BOY SCOUTS YEAR-BOOK. My father, a boy at the time, read it cover-to-cover; he became a Scout in part as a result. Some 30 years later he passed it on to me. I did the same. The one story that had the greatest impact on my wanting to be a Scout was by Brewer Corcoran: “You Tell ‘Em, Tenderfoot.” What you’ve just read is an update of his original story, retold from the perspective of a boy on the cusp of becoming a Boy Scout. I humbly owe my own life of Scouting experiences to my father and Mr. Corcoran, and I thank my wife, Linda, for encouraging me to write this and for being the best editor and cheerleader a writer and husband could have.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and will pass it along to a boy who just might be as inspired by it as my own Dad and me.